Cyprus Mail
Guest ColumnistOpinion

The importance of the grassroots in growing the peace

Like Einstein’s definition of insanity, we have been doing the same thing over and over for 50 years, always hoping for a different result


By Marina Christofides


Even though the Cyprus talks have resumed, there is no doubt that the damage the Elam decision on enosis has done to our society, at a time when it is trying to reconcile and reunite, has been immense.

People who previously had been more inclined to favour reunification, now find themselves saying we’re better off apart, digging in to our age old adversarial positions. It’s becoming more and more evident to me, that we are being swept towards partition almost without realising it.

I recently received an email from a professor who teaches at a California State University and Pepperdine University in the US, asking about a book I have written called, The Traitors Club. My book looks at the Cyprus problem from the grassroots level, through the eyes of a group of friends from both sides of the divide and the professor was interested in putting it on his reading list for a class he teaches in conflict resolution that uses Cyprus as a case study.

Professor Marco Turk told me that he has been involved with the Cyprus problem as an academic in the US and as a Fulbright scholar on the island offering a series of mediation training programmes from 1997 to 1999. As the subject of conflict resolution interests me, I read his book, Visions in Conflict: Peacebuilding in Cyprus: A View from the Ground. Of particular relevance for us here in Cyprus at this stage of developments are his conclusions and thoughts on the possible outcome of the problem.

Why, he asks, after all these years and so many efforts internally and internationally, is the problem still apparently irresolvable and intractable?

Clearly, he says, the efforts of the political elite have failed, and the future holds little promise for reunification. The de jure partition of Cyprus may be the likely solution.

He’s right. Like Einstein’s definition of insanity, for 50 years we have been doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. Each side, he writes, has been focused on obtaining that to which it feels it has a right, adopting a zero-sum bargaining approach with neither side willing to relinquish any of the advantages it has gained from the division, and showed no concern for what is mutually beneficial.

Instead of dealing with meaningful specifics, he says, there has been a continual barrage of emotional appeals employing ‘trigger’ words and scare tactics. These emotional appeals have enabled the ‘spoiling’ process to survive so that nothing changes except the names of the respective political leaders of the two communities.

A new approach is needed, he writes, if reunification is to be achieved. Otherwise Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots and Turkey all will suffer.

Even though the book was published in 2013 shortly after Anastasiades was elected, his words are just as valid today, all the more so in view of the recent events. While talks have now resumed, personally I no longer hold out much hope for them. For one thing, I have lost my trust in the leaders that they truly have the ability to guide a divided nation towards reconciliation. But what’s worse, I fear that the people aren’t ready yet, so that even if by some miracle the talks were to succeed, chances are the peace would collapse soon after.

It is a sad fact that half of all peace agreements fail, and in the years since 2003 when the checkpoints opened, too little has been done to heal the wounds of the past, overturn the toxic propaganda we have been promoting since ‘74 and prepare the people for reconciliation.

Yet, as Professor Turk writes in his book, the best hope for reunification rests precisely in the hands of the people on both sides. The game needs to be changed from the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach we have been so futilely pursuing for so long.

The only way is for the people themselves on both sides of the dispute, at the grassroots level, to take control of our own destiny, something the UN envoy Espen Barth Eide has also repeatedly stressed in his interviews. It’s up to us, the people, to make our wishes felt and show the leaders that reunification is what we want. Such an approach is the only one that actually has a chance of succeeding.

There are a number of ways, according to the professor, that grassroots civil society can be empowered to change the game and transform the conflict from the bottom-up. First of all, civil society needs to be brought into the negotiations process, something that has not been done to date. Civil society needs to be able to express its interests and underlying needs at the bargaining table. Its absence at the talks has been a blatant omission.

Secondly, he says that the customary consideration of truth and then reconciliation, as was the case in South Africa, should be reversed, since it is only after reconciliation has begun that the truth can surface. An intense programme of intercommmunal grassroots dialogue workshops needs to be set up island-wide empowering an honest exchange of memories that willingly admit the past transgressions of both communities, present the opportunity for apologies given and accepted, and grant forgiveness freely expressed so that a true reconciliation can be achieved.

Only such grassroots activities have the power to heal and transform the hatred into sorrow and forgiveness, providing the required shift in our society from adversarial to collaborative, from a historical culture of conflict to one of peace.

The goal should be for a rational consensus to be built concerning a description of the past so that a reasonable agreement can be reached regarding the dreadful acts that were perpetrated on both sides. This would enable people to see the humanity and the validity of the other’s needs and reach a just way to bury the past.

In this respect, he says, a balance should be struck between looking back to neutralise history and looking forward to build a new society. Both looking back and looking forward are necessary because if there is a failure to examine past crimes, there will be more problems in the future.

Grassroots activities, he says, is what will enable the people to get out of the rut where criticism of us, or praise for the other side, is seen as an act of disloyalty and treason, where everyone on the other side are enemies, where if you are not with us you are against us. Anger and hatred engendered by the past will get Cyprus nowhere.



Marina Christofides is the author of The Traitors’ Club, a memoir on the Cyprus problem, and the award-winning illustrated history of Cyprus, The Island Everyone Wanted. Both books are available online from her website, and main bookshops islandwide.

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